IT Directions: More Challenges Ahead for Campus IT

Education is too expensive, and CIOs are heading out to pasture, says Gartner's higher ed technology analyst--and that's only the beginning.


IT DEPARTMENTS IN HIGHER EDUCATION face a number of challenges over the next five years, including aging CIOs, a need for better security, and a coming peak in tuition costs that will crunch budgets even further. Those are just some of the issues facing college and university IT organizations, according to Gartner Research Director Marti Harris (www.gartner.com), who spoke at Gartner’s annual spring symposium in San Francisco in May, and who specializes in the area of higher education technology strategy.

Looking at a challenge facing all of America, not just higher education, Gartner predicts that half of current IT leaders on US campuses will retire by 2010. Unless schools take steps immediately to train new IT managers, Harris says, they will face a leadership vacuum. And since many companies are facing the same problem, attracting outside help may be tough.

To replace soon-to-retire IT leaders, “Universities need to have a plan in place in the next two years,” Harris says. Mentoring existing staff may be a good option, she advises, because of the special knowledge needed in higher ed. “It’s not just an understanding of technology and management and leadership,” she explains, “it’s also an understanding of the university environment.”

What’s more, though the IT budget crunch is seeing some relief now as the economy improves and state tax revenues rise, Harris cautions that the improvement should be viewed as slight and cyclical. Higher education will face another round of “do more with less” as steep tuition hikes inevitably begin to level off, perhaps around 2010 or 2011, she predicts.

According to Gartner studies, although mean US household income has risen just 15 percent since 1990, college tuition and fees have grown by three times that number. “It can’t keep going up that way,” Harris says; “these big increases in fees and tuition can’t continue.” Compounding the picture, she says, US college-age population will peak in 2009, resulting in a downturn in the core source of traditional students: graduating high school seniors. Enrollments may continue to grow, the analyst allows, but not necessarily fed by increases in students coming directly from high school. In anticipation of the tuition plateau in or around 2011, accompanied by more budget restructuring, Gartner suggests that IT organizations continue to focus on long-term efficiencies.

More challenges

Recent acquisitions in technology sectors serving higher education also pose new challenges for schools, says Harris. Regarding Oracle’s (www.oracle.com) acquisition of PeopleSoft (www.peoplesoft.com), Gartner believes Oracle will stay in the higher education market long-term, and will work to retain its PeopleSoft customers. However, the company needs to clarify its direction, including the architecture and release timetable for Fusion, says Harris. Fusion is Oracle’s moniker for its next generation of applications that will merge PeopleSoft and J.D. Edwards (www.oracle.com) software with Oracle’s.

Unless schools take step immediately to train new IT managers, they'll be facing a leadership vacuum.

“The pain of the Oracle/PeopleSoft acquisition was that there were two product lines for higher ed, and Oracle [therefore] had to make decisions,” Harris explains. She expects to see more acquisitions as the largest integrated systems vendors look for additional modules to add to their education suites.

And security issues continue to challenge IT administrators, Harris adds, pointing to Gartner’s tracking of a 50 percent increase in security incidents in higher education in 2004. Despite the fact that anti-virus software was available at every school the research firm surveyed, only 73 percent of those institutions required anti-virus software to be in place before students could connect to their campus networks. This clearly illustrates the need for better security policies, Harris maintains.

On the eLearning front, better library search products can help entice students who currently use Google to instead use specific tools to search the more focused, higher-quality content of university libraries. Harris cited as promising the May announcement of a collaboration between Google Scholar (scholar.google.com) and Ex Libris SFX (www.exlibrisgroup. com/sfx.htm). Under the agreement, Google Scholar searches will be able to return OpenURL links to SFX.

“I’ve been saying that we need to make [college and university] libraries better,” Harris declares. “This is a step in that direction.” The analyst says she expects to see Google make similar agreements with other companies.

More teaching-model merging. Although learning styles are certainly evolving, face-to-face time in classrooms clearly isn’t going away, Harris offers. “Socialization is still a big part of the college/university experience,” she says, adding that she expects to see more combinations of traditional classrooms and eLearning in the next five years. “We’ll still see Blackboard (www.blackboard.com) or WebCT (www.webct.com) for most classes, with perhaps an online course mixed in. We’ll see a lot of that.”

Harris also predicts big changes in learning devices, citing the influence of Apple’s iPod, in particular. “Audio books are going to make a big comeback because of iPods,” she says, pointing especially to electronic books. While multitasking students find it hard to read and do anything else at the same time, they can listen and do other things, Harris explains, portending a growth in audio books for students used to constant audio input. “I believe students will want to have audio books that they’ll check out and use on their devices.” So much for eyestrain from late-night reading.

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